We wait all year for the rut, and then poof, it’s over. Lockdown hits, deer activity screeches to a halt, and all of sudden, it’s not the rut anymore. It’s the post-rut. But take heart. There’s good news. The action is about to pick up again, at least a little. More important, any buck you do see now is apt to be a whopper.
The key to hunting this period is to go into it with the right frame of mind. At this point in the season, most deer are tired, hungry, and skittish. You’re not going to see them bouncing around the woods or waltzing into the fields. On the other hand, this is one of the very few times during the season when the absolute biggest bucks are truly vulnerable. You may get cold and you may get bored. But if you stick it out, you may wind up with a new focal point for trophy room.
The Pickup Breeding Phase of the Rut
The rut seems to get two new phases every year, but one new phase that’s gotten a lot of ink recently which I think is both legit and useful to delineate is “pickup breeding.” This is the period immediately following peak breeding when younger bucks and does reset their focus primarily on feeding. They’ll bed close to food to conserve energy and try to avoid contact with mature bucks. These deer are whooped from the rigors of the rut and on edge from a week or more of the heavier hunting pressure that comes with gun season. The don’t want to move far to feed, and they’re wary about stepping into the open before dark. The exception to the rule here are the handful of late-cycling does that are just now coming into estrous. And that’s where the big bucks come in.
Mature bucks—those massive old warriors that were so hard to find during peak breeding—are still on their feet, covering ground in their search for the final few does of the primary rut. Even this action feels comparatively subdued, with bucks plodding, rather than trotting, to their next rendezvous. But it’s the only action you need to have a one-in-a-lifetime hunt, if you’re sitting in the right place.
Back in 2015, we ask out regional Rut Reporters to research fetal-aging, fawn-drop, and other data to determine a range of dates when each rut phase is most apt to be active in seven regions. Here are dates they came up with for the pickup-breeding phase.
✖ Northeast: Nov. 21–28
✖ North-Central: Nov. 21–28
✖ Great Plains: Nov. 21–28
✖ West: Nov. 25–Dec. 2
✖ Mid-South: Nov. 26–Dec. 3
✖ South-Central: Dec. 3–10
✖ South: Dec. 9–16
Pickup Breeding Tactic No. 1: Wait by Water
The Action: With some of the most frenzied action weeks behind you, it’s easy to feel deflated now and just give up. Don’t do it, because the pickup-breeding phase may be the very best time of the year to target and tag a true giant. While lesser bucks are exhausted from running, and tired of getting their clocks cleaned, the big guys are getting a second wind and scouring the woods for a relative handful of unbred does. This first tactic is specifically designed for intercepting a monster buck now.
The Hot Zone: It’s time to think beyond the confines of your hunting property. Your goal is to find a macro funnel. Bust out a topo map, aerial photo, or satellite image of a large area surrounding your ground. First, circle the major food sources and potential bedding areas on your area and beyond. Then identify major travel arteries connecting them; think waterways, fencelines, hedgerows, and ridge systems. With mature bucks traveling big, they are bound to move through these macro funnels.
The Hunt Plan: One of the best macro funnels is a wooded riverbottom, especially one fed by other creeks. Not only does this make a perfect travel artery for cruising bucks; it also provides bedding, browse, and water for other deer. It’s like a highway connecting every motel and restaurant in an area. Hang a stand in a multitrunked tree and bring entertainment, such as a book or smartphone. You’ll probably have to wait a while for your buck, but when he shows, he’ll be a stud.
Tip: If the creek is shallow, approaching along its course mitigates your scent trail, and the banks often hide your silhouette. If the waterway is navigable, use a canoe or johnboat to get to your stand (and get your buck out).
Pickup Breeding Tactic No. 1: Seek Hidden Foods
While the big boys are still seeking mates, other bucks, including some good ones, are switching their focus to staying alive. Most gun seasons are open now, and that influx of hunters is making bucks extra wary. But even freaked-out deer have to eat; so your job is to find a good, hidden food source. Does—avoiding large feeding areas to dodge harassment from bucks—seek secluded groceries now, too, and may pull in additional bucks.
If you’ve planted hidey-hole food plots near thick cover, this is the time to hunt them. Otherwise, look for hidden foods such as acorns, soft mast, or small cuts overgrown with browse. Slip in around noon, do some quick scouting, and set up as quietly as possible, as deer may be bedded nearby.
Tip: Be extra careful about calling and rattling now. Even a good-looking 2- or 3-year-old buck may be tired of fighting at this stage. If you need to get a buck’s attention, try a bleat call first.